Zero Hour – Chapter 1

The worst day of Lucas Parker’s life began and ended with a woman, a fire, and a train.

In the morning, the fire was the cigarette and burned between the strange woman’s lips. She seemed insistent on making it belch as much smoke as humanly possible. Lucas had good lungs, but he struggled to breathe as the woman let loose another cloud. He inched down the train platform, but it wasn’t enough. Eventually, Lucas turned to look down at the odd woman. He took in her fiery red hair and her grey suit for a moment before letting out an awkward cough.

“You really shouldn’t smoke on the platforms.”

The woman took another drag. “Why?”

“Because…” Lucas paused for a moment. “I don’t know. It’s going to kill you. It might kill me.”

The woman shrugged. “Everybody dies. Entropy claims us all eventually. That’s how the universe works. Ever since the Big Bang, the universe has been trying to work itself out into a equal state of nothingness. Like coffee, cooling to room temperature. I don’t think my cigarette will matter in a trillion years.”

Okay, then. Clearly, the woman had more problems than just a smoking habit.

Lucas inched a little further down the train platform. The woman didn’t seem perturbed by Lucas’ attempts to get away from her. Instead, she just sucked in more chemicals and watched him from behind black-ringed eyes. “Are you boring?”

“I…” The question caught any answer Lucas might have had and jammed it back down his throat.

It didn’t really seem to matter, because the woman just kept going, and Lucas had the growing feeling that she would have done that regardless of what he’d actually said. “You look boring. Good. Stay boring.”

“Okay,” was all that Lucas could come up with.

He was spared any further interaction with the strange woman by the screech of the arriving train. As it hissed to a stop in front of him and the doors slid open, Lucas half-walked, half-leapt through them. As he grabbed onto the handrail that hung from the car ceiling, Lucas looked back at the woman. She hadn’t moved. Instead, she just watched Lucas idly and sucked in more smoke.

Lucas coughed. “Er… are you coming?”

“This isn’t my train.” The woman replied coldly.

“…this train only goes one place.”

“Does it?” The woman asked, an instant before the doors hissed shut in front of her.

No matter how hard he tried, Lucas couldn’t forget the woman. He thought about her on the entire train ride to work. He thought about her while he sat in the cramped server room that was his office. He thought about her while he was being berated by a vice president for daring to suggest turning the computer off and on again. (It had ended up working after that.)

Lucas didn’t stop thinking about the woman until he stood on the train platform. As he waited for the train to pull in and take him back home, he stared out at the Chicago skyline and turned his cell phone over and over in his hands. Instead, his thoughts turned to a different, but no less unsettling woman. It took a minute, but eventually he scrolled through his contacts and pressed the one he was looking for.

It took three rings to go to voicemail.

“Happy birthday, Mom,” Lucas said, and hung up. Then he put his phone back in his pocket. He knew she wouldn’t call him back.

 

He tried to clear his head as best he could on the train ride home, but it didn’t work until Lucas stepped through the door to the apartment that he and Trevor shared. As he shut the door behind him, Lucas’ attention was drawn to a photo of the two that hung just opposite of it.

It had been taken a few years ago, while the two were on vacation on some beach that Lucas had forgotten the name of. Lucas stood to the right, tall and fair-skinned, with his blonde hair, glasses, and runner’s build. His hand was wrapped around Trevor’s waist as he smiled at the camera. Trevor was shorter and skinnier than Lucas, and his tan skin stood out from the white of the sand clearly. His black hair was tousled in the breeze, and he was smiling more broadly than Lucas ever could.

They had been fresh out of college when the photo was taken. Lucas was now thirty, and Trevor half a year behind him. A lot of time had passed, and yet nothing seemed to have changed between then and now.

From the kitchen, Lucas could hear the sounds of pots banging and Trevor humming to himself. He smiled, almost without thinking about it, and walked around the corner into the apartment kitchen. Trevor himself stood at the sink, elbow-deep in soapy water. He turned his head as soon as Lucas walked in and grinned.

“Hey, babe,” Trevor said. After a moment, he held up his soapy hands sheepishly. “Sorry, I’m a bit… of a mess.”

Lucas crossed the gap between them and planted a kiss squarely on Trevor’s lips, eliciting a small “mmmph” sound from his boyfriend. “Aren’t we all?” He said after he pulled back. Then he walked over to the fridge and opened it up, grabbing a bottle of water out of it. “Are you going to work tonight?”

Trevor, who was in the process of wiping his hands off on a dishrag, nodded. “In about an hour. I thought I’d do some cleaning first. How was work today?”

“Stressful,” Lucas took a gulp of his water and set it down on the counter next to him, “There was this really weird woman on the train this morning. She started talking about how nothing matters in the universe and how I should stay boring. It was… odd.”

“Was she on drugs?” Trevor paused for a moment to think, “No, wait, scratch that. This is Chicago. Of course she was on drugs. Come here.”

It took Lucas a second to realize that Trevor had switched gears. “Huh?”

Trevor sighed and took a few steps over to Lucas. He wrapped his arms around Lucas’ waist and drew him closer, his lips moving up to lock with Lucas’. They stayed like that for a moment, together in the middle of the kitchen, before Lucas broke the kiss. “I thought you had to go to work.”

“Yeah, in an hour,” Trevor replied, and kissed him again, harder this time. Lucas leaned into it, wrapping his arms around Trevor’s neck. His body pressed up against Trevor’s, pushing him back into the counter while he hummed beneath Lucas. Trevor’s hands slipped under Lucas’ shirt and started to slide up his back, his touch like electricity-

And then Lucas heard the sound of the phone ring. Three times. And then go to voicemail.

“Happy birthday, Mom.”

Trevor seemed to know immediately that something was wrong. He pulled back to stare up at Lucas, a frown sliding onto his face. “Lucas? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Lucas lied, badly.

Annoyance flashed across Trevor’s face. “Something’s wrong with you. What’s going on?”

“I told you. Nothing.” Lucas said, and leaned down to kiss Trevor again. This time, however, Trevor darted out from underneath Lucas and took a few steps away. When he turned around, his arms were crossed – the universal sign for Trevor being upset.

“There is absolutely something wrong, Lucas. You can’t just keep hiding things from me. That’s not healthy.”

Lucas averted his gaze away, trying to look anywhere except at Trevor. “I don’t know what to tell you, Trevor.”

“Exactly,” Trevor replied, and turned away. “I’m going to the bar.”

“I thought you said you didn’t have to go to work for an hour?”

By now, Trevor had made his way around the corner and into the hallway, out of Lucas’ view. “There’s other things to do at the bar besides work.” He poked his head around the corner. “By the way, tell Isabel I said hello.” And with that, his head disappeared. A moment later, the door slammed shut.

 

Lucas met Isabel Lindsey for the first time in three years at a restaurant that was far out of his price range. Fortunately, she had offered to pay, because according to her, she’d seen the places that Lucas could afford, and “my stomach can’t handle that.” Lucas had opted to wear a button-down shirt, slacks, and a tie, because he knew that no matter what he wore, Isabel would be better dressed than him.

He was right. Isabel wore a tan suit that went perfectly with her dark skin. Her hair was immaculately braided back in dreadlocks, and not a single one was out of place. Her makeup was perfectly applied and her skin was unblemished.

And she had just finished telling him that her father was dead.

“I’m… so sorry,” was all that Lucas could say in response. “I… haven’t really kept up with the news these days. It’s depressing.”

“Darling, I can’t blame you at all.” Isabel took a sip from her wineglass – a vintage she had picked for the table, citing Lucas’ unfortunate lack of taste. “His funeral is next weekend. I can’t say I’m looking forward to it.”

Lucas shook his head. “I can’t imagine. Are you going back to London after the funeral is over?”

“No.”

Lucas’ own wineglass stopped halfway to his mouth. “Why not? I thought you were almost finished with your doctorate.”

Isabel’s expression barely changed. “Something more important has come up. My father’s estate – his possessions, finances, businesses, everything – is being held in escrow by his bank. I’d like to know why. There is apparently no living will, at least, not one that I’ve been made aware of. It’s all very suspicious.”

“Well,” Lucas said, as he thought about how this entire thing was completely over his head, “If anybody can get to the bottom of it, you can.”

Isabel smiled at him warmly. “Thank you, darling. Your faith in me is well-placed. How’s Trevor? I understand he had to work tonight.”

The memory of Trevor’s disappointed expression flashed through Lucas’ mind. “Uh… he’s fine.” He paused for a moment, considering, and then realized that there was no way he could hide anything from Isabel. Everyone in his life was far too perceptive. “We had a bit of a fight, actually.”

“Oh? Tell me about it. I live for drama.” Isabel smirked across the table.

Lucas sighed. In all the years they’d known each other, Isabel had never changed. “There wasn’t any drama. I was upset about something he wasn’t a part of and I didn’t tell him about it. That’s all.”

“Sounds like you should apologize.”

“I’m not wrong, though.” Lucas protested.

Isabel took a sip of her wine and waved a hand dismissively. “Darling, it’s not about you being right or wrong. You hurt his feelings by shutting him out. That upset him. You need to at least acknowledge that, even if you don’t want to let him in on whatever happened with you.”

She was right, of course. Lucas had learned by now that Isabel was quite often right. At least about things that didn’t concern herself.

Not that he’d say that out loud, of course, because she was also terrifying.

 

Twelve hours after his strange encounter with the chain-smoking woman, Lucas stood on the same train platform. The night hung over the city like a blanket, and the city was waking up beneath it. Lucas, on the other hand, couldn’t wait to crawl into bed and hope he was still asleep when Trevor got home.

He knew he probably should apologize. Bartending was stressful enough. Trevor didn’t need to be worry about coming home. But that was what the morning was for. It’d be quiet. They could talk then. Lucas didn’t need to distract Trevor any more than he already was. Besides, he had to work the next day.

Lucas was so lost in his thoughts that he didn’t register the sound of someone speaking until they had finished. After a moment, his brain caught up with his ears, and he looked around. “I’m sorry?”

The figure who had spoken was seated on a bench across on the opposite platform, silhouetted by shadows. Lucas couldn’t see his face, but everything from his posture to his lack of movement made Lucas uneasy. “I said to go home.”

“Oh.” Lucas said. The silence hung between them for a moment before Lucas spoke again. “…why?”

The figure waved a shadowed hand. “Because the shadows are dangerous. Stay out in them for too long, and they will swallow you whole. Better to remain indoors, in the light, where the shadows can’t touch you… or so you can think, if it makes you comfortable.”

Great. Another crazy person.

“Thanks,” Lucas said, and silently tried to will the train to pull into the station faster.

Thankfully, it rounded the bend at that moment. As the train pulled into the station, Lucas’ view of the shadowy figure was thankfully obscured. The doors hissed open, and he rushed onto the train quickly. Thankfully, the car was empty. Lucas didn’t feel like being around any more people.

It took until he was well past the next station to get his head on straight. When he did, and his thoughts returned, Lucas realized he was making a mistake.

Even if he went home right after, he should apologize to Trevor.

He loved Trevor. He wanted to make things right.

At the next station, Lucas got off the train. He forced himself to walk down and under the elevated station, around to the other side, where a train would take him back to downtown Chicago. He would apologize to Trevor, have a drink, and then go home.

Lucas didn’t have to wait long for the next car to pull up. When it did, he stepped into it and turned back towards the door, as if his body was briefly trying to pull him back onto the platform. Lucas thought of Trevor, resisted, and waited for the door to snap shut in front of him.

Then he turned to stare directly at the pointed end of a rapier.

Lucas’ eyes followed the metal all the way down to the hilt, to the hand holding it, to the arm attached to that, and up to the face, which belonged to the woman from that morning. Her eyes were ablaze, and her red hair was unkempt. The sheath of the sword lay discarded on the ground – clearly, the rapier had been hidden in the cane the woman was carrying.

Oh. Great.

They stared at each other for a full, agonizing minute before the woman broke the silence.

“Who are you?” She snarled. Lucas sputtered out several beginnings to words before she cut him off. “If you are a trap, you’re a very bad one.”

“I’m not a trap.” Lucas managed to get out.

The blade inched a bit closer to his face. “That’s precisely what a trap would say.”

“Listen,” Lucas said slowly as he took a step back, “I don’t want trouble. I’m just going downtown. I’ll get off at the next station, I promise. Put that down. Please.”

The woman shook her head. “It’s far too late for that.” She said, almost sadly, and lowered the rapier to her side. “Get behind me. Quickly.”

Before Lucas could ask what she meant, the train car hissed to a stop. The woman grabbed ahold of Lucas with an unusually strong grip and yanked him behind her just as the door hissed open. As Lucas turned, he saw the shadowy figure from earlier still seated on the bench. The figure rose slowly and stepped out into the dim light of the train platform.

He appeared to be a man, but he looked as though he had all color drained from him. His hair was as grey as his skin, the white of his eyes the only spot of brightness on his entire face. He was dressed like the woman, in a grey coat, and he had a sword strapped to his back, because of course he did.

Lucas had no idea what was going on, but he knew two things. One, that both of these people were insane. And two, that he wanted to be nowhere near them.

The grey man held out his hand. “Give me the vial, Lady Morrow.”

The woman – Lady Morrow, it seemed – raised her rapier in front of her. “In exchange for what?”

“I think you’ve grossly misread the room,” The grey man intoned. “Give me the vial. You have no other option.”

Lady Morrow snorted. “Why would I bring my only bargaining chip to a negotiation? Do you think I’m stupid? I’ve hidden it. I’ve hidden it away so well that it will take you an eternity to find it.”

“Fortunately, an eternity is what I have. You, on the other hand, do not. Remember that, in your last moment.” The grey man stepped back.

The door began to slide shut. Lucas took his chance and dove for it…

…only for it to shut inches in front of his face.

His fist slammed on the door. Beyond the plexiglass, the grey man raised a hand and motioned to someone that Lucas couldn’t see as the train began to move.

That’s when Lucas heard the noise. Teeeeeke. It was almost a death rattle, like nails on a chalkboard. Teeeeeeke. He spun around to see what it was, and saw the top half of a woman crawl through the door to the next car.

Only the top half of a rotting, dead woman, dragging herself along by her hands.

Teeeeeke.

“What the fu-” Lucas managed to get out before Lady Morrow swept between him and the half-woman. Her sword flashed up before her as she pushed Lucas back.

“We need to move!” She shouted, “Get to the other car! Go!”

Lucas turned and sprinted across the length of the train car. As soon as he reached the door to the next car and pulled it open, however, he realized there was a flaw in that plan. The next car had been detached from their car and was speeding away down the elevated tracks. Atop it, Lucas could see a shadowy, goat-like figure, with horns and hooves. Whatever it was, it had clearly wanted to seperate them from any means of escape.

And as Lady Morrow bumped against Lucas’ back, he realized why.

Further down the tracks, something massive was clinging to the side of the railing. As Lucas watched, the creature reached out with a massive, clawed hand, and grabbed hold of the train tracks. It twisted, and the tracks snapped apart as easily as twigs. Then the creature dropped down, out of sight.

Lucas didn’t have time to shout a warning. He didn’t have time to do much of anything. All he had time to do was spin around, grab hold of Lady Morrow with one hand, and grab ahold of the doorframe with the other.

The train slammed into the broken section of track and smashed to a halt. Lucas was sent flying, but still gripping tightly onto Lady Morrow and the door. He fell downwards, snapping to a stop as his arms reached their full length. Above him, the car sparked against the tracks, and flames began to lick the edges of the car. He couldn’t see the half-woman anymore, which was something, at least.

Lucas looked down at Lady Morrow. She was clinging to his arm as she looked around for some way out. They were hanging nearly twenty feet over the street below. The fall wouldn’t kill either of them, but it would really hurt for both of them to land on it.

Or if just one of them landed on it…

Lucas made a snap decision. He yanked himself upwards, flexing his arms together to pull Lady Morrow up near him. Then he let go of the train car, wrapped his arms around her, and twisted his body so that his back was to the street below.

They fell.

Sorry, Trevor, thought Lucas.

He hit the ground.

Everything went red.

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